Halting S.Korea-US drills risks weakening N.Korea deterrence

Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea

U.S. and South Korean defense officials formally suspended a major joint military exercise in hopes of advancing nuclear negotiations with North Korea. It’s a bold gamble that could trigger a serious security crisis if the talks falter and the allies are forced to resume the drills, infuriating North Korea, analysts say.

The cancellation, abruptly decided by President Donald Trump at his summit last week with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was formally announced by the Pentagon on Monday. South Korea’s Defense Ministry simultaneously confirmed the suspension of the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises, consisting largely of computer-simulated war games.

In announcing his decision, Trump said suspending the “provocative” war games would “save us a tremendous amount of money.” The decision, which apparently came without consultations with South Korea or the Pentagon, surprised many in South Korea and the United States who believe the training is a central pillar of their countries’ seven-decade military alliance dating back to the 1950-53 Korean War.

South Korean military commentator Lee Illwoo described the halt as “temporarily pulling off the wheels of the alliance.” Other experts agree that the suspension will weaken, at least temporarily, the allies’ defense posture against North Korea and open gaps in their combined deterrence.

Seoul and Washington describe the move as a temporary measure to prolong ongoing detente on the Korean Peninsula and increase the chances of successful nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. But if North Korea doesn’t reciprocate by taking serious steps toward denuclearization, the allies would be compelled to resume the drills, and that would certainly draw a furious response from North Korea, which views the exercises as rehearsals for an invasion, experts say.

South Korea and the United States have always said the drills are purely defensive. But they have been a major source of tensions on the peninsula, with North Korea putting its 1.1 million-member military on alert and staging its own weapons tests and military training in response.

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